The arbitrators awarded two financial advisers and their assistant about $24 million on breach of contract and unjust enrichment claims against Citi. Why? You won’t find out from reading the FINRA award, nor can you discern any details about the underlying claims. “In my opinion, it is absurd to render an award for $15.8 Million in employment-related compensatory damages with a further $1 million in “sanctions” tacked on and not offer the industry or the investing public a scintilla of factual background,” wrote Singer. “Frankly, this makes a farce out of mandatory industry arbitration. Why bother publishing anything about the dispute?”
After Singer’s post alerted us to the decision, we reached out to Peter Pendergast of Prince Lobel Tye, who represented claimants James and Robert Minchello and Martha Jane Sullivan, hoping for that missing scintilla of background. He told us he could only speak on his own behalf, since his clients’ current employer prohibits them from commenting publicly. ( Dow Jones reported that all three are currently employed by J.P. Morgan Securities LLC in Boston.) But Pendergast did fill in some of the gaps in the FINRA panel’s bare-bones decision.
Pendergast said Citi recruited the Minchellos from Banc of America Securities in March 2002. They joined Citi’s Smith Barney arm, bringing with them most of their clients–which included venture capital and institutional investors–along with their clients’ assets. Initially they were paid a percentage of the revenue generated by Citi on their client’s transactions. But in the FINRA action, filed in April 2009, they claimed the bank eventually cut them out of the loop and refused to pay them their promised commissions.
The Minchellos and Sullivan initially asked for more than $78 million in compensatory damages and another $156 million in punitive damages. After 84 hearing sessions spanning 43 dates, the panel awarded the Minchellos and Sullivan $15.8 million in compensatory damages, about $7 million in interest, and $1 million in sanctions. The panel denied their request for punitive damages.
“The award reflects a just result and a rebuke to the practice of certain industry participants accepting the benefit of executing transactions on behalf of financial advisers’ clients and refusing to pay promised compensation,” Pendergast told Dow Jones. When we asked him about the sanctions award, Pendergast said, “I can only say that I believe that the $1 million dollars in sanctions reflects that the panel believed that there was something wrong with Citigroup’s conduct.”
We reached out to Citi lawyer Michele Coffey of Morgan, Lewis & Bockius to see if the company planned to contest the award, but she didn’t immediately respond to our request for comment. Citigroup told Dow Jones Newswires it was “disappointed” with the award. Pendergast said he could not see a good faith basis for Citigroup to appeal the award. “I wonder whether a reasonable Citi executive would pursue any further expenditures chasing a claim that has already been well vetted before a sophisticated panel for 43 days,” he said.